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Mining for (Source) Content Gold

by Amy Wallace on June 21st, 2012

As a writer or editor, it’s ideal to get solid content strategy and background information before you start creating content. But sometimes you need to fend for yourself.

The scenario plays out like this: You’ve been assigned to write the content for a website, and you’re ready to get started (hooray!). Even if there is no strategy, you hope there’s loads of source material. Or at least enough to support the proposed site structure and objectives.

Then, you’re presented with one measly PDF. Good luck!

Not exactly enough to create a website with, is it? If your source content is non-existent, then you’re going to have to find it. You can do it. Here’s how.

gus chiggins

Old prospectors found gold. And you can, too!
(Will Ferrell as Gus Chiggins on Saturday Night Live)

Identify subject matter experts (SMEs)

Whether you’re working with a client or an internal team, you’ll need to identify your project’s key players. And they aren’t necessarily the ones that give sign-offs and approvals. You’re looking for the people that know the product or service inside and out—researchers, product developers, customer service representatives, marketing folks. People who spend their days immersed in the very stuff you need to write about.

Sit down with your project sponsor and talk about who these people might be. Get a list of names and job titles. Then schedule some time to chat with each one of them.

Create a discussion guide

Once you’ve determined who you’ll be interviewing, it’s a good idea to create a discussion guide. Nothing too rigid or overdeveloped—think outline or talking points. Something that will help you keep the conversation on track, and get to the heart of the information you really need: content priorities for both users and the business, as well as tangible knowledge about the product or service.

Ask simple, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the <product or service>?
  • What are the benefits to consumers? How is this <product or service> different from similar offerings in the market?
  • What is some typical feedback (positive or negative) that you hear from consumers about the <product or service>?
  • If you could convey one key message, what would it be?
  • Are there any existing written materials or other information about <product or service> that you could share with me?

Whether it’s a module, a few web pages, or an entire site, the content needs to exist for a reason (this, of course, in an ideal world where pet projects and knee-jerk reactions to competitors don’t exist). It’s your job to find out why—and why users should care.

Talk … and listen

You’ll be leading the discussion, but let your SME do the talking. Ask questions—and let the silence sit. Give them time to process and think. Count to 10 in your head. This may feel a little awkward (OK, it does feel awkward), but you’ll get better, more thoughtful answers in the end.  

However, sometimes, you’ll find that people need a little coaxing. This often happens when they’re unsure about their own knowledge. Many times, we’ve come across situations where people are hesitant to answer certain questions because they don’t think they’re the “expert” on the topic. And each time, we assure the person that any perspective they offer can be helpful.

In fact, it’s often those “non-expert” interpretations that help us develop the most user-focused copy—because they’re free of details that are too specific, complicated, or just plain unnecessary for the average consumer. Wherever your SME may reside on the corporate or organizational totem pole, their opinion matters. Make sure they know that, and encourage them to share.

Begin writing and reevaluating

Once you’ve gathered all of your source content, it’s time to get to work. And once you begin writing, you’ll quickly realize what’s possible and what’s not, in terms of initial priorities and site structure.

For instance, maybe the proposed sitemap doesn’t really support the content you’ve gathered. Maybe the priorities are different, now that you’ve heard from the actual people in the trenches.

Don’t be afraid to recommend structural changes. Just as your SMEs understand the product or service, you understand the content and what it needs to do to be the most effective, for users and the business. If you see an opportunity to make the content (and user experience) better, don’t ignore it.

So, eureka! There you have it. With a little initiative, nurturing, and planning, you can create relevant, focused source content. And that’s pure gold.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Web Writing

Anatomy of a web content document

by Amy Wallace on February 23rd, 2010

For anyone who works with content, knowing how to format a web content document—or simply how to read it—is a crucial step in successful content creation. 

Why? Because without a clearly structured web content document, you run the risk of confusing your content reviewers, designers, and developers. And that confusion can lead to mistakes and frustration—stuff that could end up manifesting itself on your website.
 
Remember, a web content document isn’t just used by web writers, even though they are often the people who create and manage it.
 
Content reviewers use it to make copy edits and review messaging/tone. Designers use it to get the right copy into their design mock-ups. Developers use it to determine which copy appears as links on the actual website, and when to display dynamic content—for example, content that goes live on a specific date.
 
Here are a few of the formatting essentials you’ll need to cover to make sure your web content document (commonly called a “copy deck”) works for everyone on your marketing and/or creative team(s):
 
Links and buttons
You can count on link and/or button copy to be in just about every web content document you work with. As you probably know, this is the content that takes the user to a new page, cross-references relevant information, or helps a user complete a task.
 
You’ll need to choose a style for representing links and buttons in your document. Our standard is to format this copy as blue, underlined text. This tends to be the industry standard, too.
 
Examples:
 
Read the Brain Traffic blog
 
Submit your request
 
If you do decide to format the links and buttons in your document in a different style, make sure it’s clear—and that everyone on your team knows what it is. Keep in mind that straying from the norm might confuse reviewers, designers, and developers used to working with the standard blue, underlined text style convention.
 
Regardless of the style you choose, follow the link and button text in your content document with its destination, which will likely be based on a site map or an external URL.
 
Examples:
 
                Site map page ID:
Submit your request <link to 2.2>
 
External URL:
Read the Brain Traffic blog <link to http://blog.braintraffic.com/>
 
 Descriptive content labels
If your copy isn’t properly labeled within your content document, designers and developers working with the document can have a difficult time figuring out which copy goes where.
 
So, make sure to identify all the content pieces on each page. For example, put the label "Heading" above your page headline, "Body copy" above the main content, and "Right column copy" above content that lives on this part of the web page. Or use whatever labeling convention your agency or organization may already have established.
 
Example:
 
The key is making sure the labels are clear and easy to understand for everyone referencing your document.
 
Dynamic content
Content that may change or is dependent on functionality conditions is often referred to as "dynamic" content. For instance, if you’re working on a project that includes content that launches on different dates or should only be displayed based on certain requirements (maybe after a user logs in, for example), your document will need to specifically state when to display that content.
 
I recommend writing a short note to the developer above the specific piece of dynamic content. Describe the rule for displaying it—for example, "only display this content for California residents."
 
I write these notes in gray text, so it’s easy for developers to skim and find them throughout the content document.
 

Example:
 
<Note to developers: Display this link on 1/1/2010>
See our 2010 plans<link to 3.4>
 
Meta data
Those of you well-versed in web content know what meta data is, but let’s do a quick review. It refers to specific information developers need to make your content searchable.
 
Meta data includes:
 
·         Meta title (the title of the content page, which appears in your internet browser)
·         Meta description (a keyword-loaded description of the content page)
·         Meta keywords (words that refer to specific topics on the content page and make it easily findable)
 
A web writer or SEO expert is usually responsible for creating this information. Whether or not you create ityourself, you’ll need to include meta data in your content document. Which means you might also need to format this content, especially if you receive the meta data in a different type of document, like Microsoft Excel.
 
It’s a good idea to place the meta data in a separate section of your content  document—say, at the top of each page—so it’s clearly distinguished from the actual web copy.
 
Example:

Remember, the web content document you create isn’t just black-and-white. Sometimes it’s blue. And underlined. With notes. Because that’s what works.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Style Guides and Such, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing

Be your own content expert

by Amy Wallace on November 5th, 2009

Whether you’re a writer, editor or content strategist, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how to effectively reach your audience. Maybe you pore over personas and case studies for inspiration. But there’s probably one resource you’re not considering—you! As a web user, you can be your own content expert.

Think about it. You know what an effective user experience feels like when you come across it: An instantly identifiable objective. Clean, concise copy. Benefits front-and-center. Easy navigation and clear task instructions.

Sure, style guides and success metrics are important tools for creating better content. But as a web writer and editor, I’ve learned that considering my own user experience every step of the way is one of the best strategies for success.

Here are some tips for developing your inner content expert.

Change your perception of web writing
We all hear a lot about the differences between print writing and web writing. Overall, web writing has to be more concise—scannable, task-driven, presented in bulleted lists, etc.—than print copy.

On the surface those differences seem pretty straightforward. I mean, when it comes down to it, good writing is good writing, right?

Not exactly. Web writing is a whole other animal. It needs to work in harmony with the design and information architecture to create a seamless user experience. It needs to help people DO something. And once you recognize that, you might need to change your approach to creating content.

How? By answering this one simple—but very important—question:

Is this something I’d want to read?

In other words, if I landed on this web page and read the copy, would it hold my attention? Would I get the information I need to complete my task? It may sound like common sense, but this approach can make a huge difference in the quality of your web content. Trust me.

White space is your friend
You’ve most likely visited a website filled with paragraph after paragraph of copy. And you’ve most likely zoned out, stopped reading, and maybe even left the site. I know I have.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating your content. If you can, see how it looks in a design mock-up. How dense do those paragraphs appear? Does the copy length seem intimidating and time-consuming? Would you read it if you were trying to complete a task in the midst of juggling a million other things, as your users likely are?

If not, start slashin’. Create some white space. Web users want to find what they need as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next task. They don’t want to spend a lot of time sifting through unnecessary copy to find the information they really need.

Remember, attention spans are short. Make sure your content keeps readers engaged.

Say something that matters
Concise copy alone isn’t enough. Bulleted lists don’t guarantee good web content. You still need to make sure the limited words on the page actually help users do what they came to do or learn what they came to learn. We’re talking product or service benefits, clear instructional copy, user-friendly navigation nomenclature, etc.

When you’re trying to complete a task or order a product, you want the most direct path possible to making it happen. And that path can’t be cluttered with mission statements or "why we’re great" language—unless it supports what you’re trying to do. Does this content help you make a purchase decision? Complete your task?

Great web content is about so much more than just brevity. It’s about choosing the right words (and sometimes showing rather than telling with good design) to support an effective user experience that will keep people coming back for more.

Keep this in mind when creating your own content. It’s not about the story you want to tell—it’s about what the user wants to know. Talk to them, not at them.

Now get out there and create some killer web content. You’re the expert, after all.

 

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Writing